(Adds comments from CEO interview, details on U.S. weather impact, updates share movement)
By James B. Kelleher
April 25 (Reuters) - Whirlpool Corp on Friday reported first-quarter earnings below analysts' expectations as currency and other headwinds in Latin America and Asia offset modest sales increases in North America and Europe.
The world's largest maker of home appliances also said brutal winter weather in the United States not only kept consumers out showrooms but disrupted shipments from its factories in the Midwest, costing it between $10 million and $20 million.
The news sent the company's shares down as much as 3.6 percent on the New York Stock Exchange, although the stock had almost recovered by the afternoon.
Chief Executive Officer Jeff Fettig told Reuters he remained "very bullish on the U.S. recovery" despite a slew of disappointing reports in recent weeks on new home sales, housing starts and building permits.
The new-housing and resale markets account for 25 percent to 30 percent of U.S. home appliance demand, according to Whirlpool.
Fettig said that while the company's U.S. sales had suffered in January and February because of the weather, they snapped back in March and continued to rebound in April.
Whirlpool reported a first-quarter net profit of $160 million, or $2.02 per share, down from $252 million, or $3.12 a share, a year earlier.
Excluding a tax credit last year and restructuring costs this year, Whirlpool said earnings rose to $2.20 a share from $1.97.
But even by that measure, the results were disappointing. Analysts on average had expected the Benton Harbor, Michigan-based company to report a profit of $2.33 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"Sales in Asia were on the underwhelming side, mirroring the data that has been piling up from the region," said Brian Sozzi, chief executive officer of Belus Capital Advisors.
Results from North America, while positive, were a "rude awakening," Sozzi said, since the U.S. housing market's stuttering recovery would force Whirlpool to spend more on marketing to meet its sales goals.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Commerce Department said sales of new U.S. single-family homes tumbled to an eight-month low in March, raising concerns about the strength of the housing recovery and increasing the uncertainty for Whirlpool in its home market.
The company, which sells its washers and dryers, stoves, and refrigerators under brand names including Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, said sales rose 4.7 percent to $4.4 billion, slightly higher than the $4.3 billion analysts had expected.
Whirlpool said sales rose 4 percent in North America and by a similar rate in Europe.
Sales increased in Latin America and Asia, too, but higher material costs and currency swings hurt profitability in those regions, Whirlpool said.
The company said it expected full-year industry unit shipments to be up 5 percent to 7 percent in North America, flat to up 2 percent in Europe, flat in South America and flat to up 3 percent in Asia.
Fettig acknowledged sales to China had declined in the first quarter, something "we've not seen for a while."
But he expressed confidence that the apparent slowdown was nothing to worry about because the Chinese economy is still expected to grow at twice the rate of most other big markets.
"There is a transition going on," Fettig said. "But I don't think it's an unhealthy transition, and we're still making big investments there."
Whirlpool said it still expected to report full-year net income of $11.05 to $11.55 a share and a profit of $12.00 to $12.50, excluding items.
In afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading, Whirlpool shares were down less than 0.1 percent at $154.57 after falling as low as $149.10. (Reporting by James B. Kelleher in Detroit; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)